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Armando Bacot leans on his physicality and aggression to help UNC men's basketball beat Duke

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UNC graduate forward Armando Bacot (5) dunks the ball during the men’s basketball game against Duke at the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. UNC beat Duke 93-84.

In the hours leading up to Saturday's clash against Duke, Armando Bacot could not eat.

It was not because of nerves or because he was facing the Blue Devils for the final time in the Dean E. Smith Center. Two days prior to Saturday, the graduate center bit his tongue and physically could not eat. He tried — and failed — to eat pretzels and noodles at the team lunch on Saturday, but the pain was terrible.

By the under-10 timeout, Bacot said he was dying. He had run so hard to keep up with the high pace UNC played at, and with nothing on his stomach, he cramped and had to take a seat on the bench.

Then, with less than six minutes to go in the first period, he checked back into the game.

Only a few minutes later, Duke center Kyle Filipowski ran into Bacot in the lane, jabbing his elbow right into the UNC big man’s face. Or, in Bacot’s words, “he ran through my face.”

As a result, the UNC graduate student said he chipped five of his teeth: two in the front, three in the back. But, at the end of the media timeout, he went right back into the game, this time with a mouth guard in place.

Mounting mouth-related injuries aside, Bacot was on his way to a season-high 25-point performance, headlined by moments of toughness. In No. 3 North Carolina’s 93-84 handling of No. 7 Duke, the graduate center’s aggressive action on both ends of the floor made him the  second Tar Heel and first since Charlie Scott to compile at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists against Duke. 

“I knew coming into this game, I would have a big game," Bacot said.

Approaching Saturday’s top-10 matchup, Bacot said he was pissed off. Online, he read about people questioning him and how much he really wanted it.

"I took that personally," he said.

After three straight games with single-digit points for the big man, Bacot and head coach Hubert Davis decided to change up their usual weekly meeting topic. Davis usually has a strict "no basketball talk" rule for these. But this time, instead of chatting about school, Netflix or food like they usually do, the head coach made an exception. 

On Thursday, Davis had to set the record straight about a few things.

He told Bacot that his role on the team has not changed. He does not view Bacot as a reserve, and it is not a specific person’s team. Then, the head coach and his center came up with a game plan: Bacot needed to be more aggressive and work harder to get the ball, and Davis would tweak the team’s plays to allow Bacot to get the ball in easier spots. 

“It’s really important for me for Armando to finish out his career the right way,” Davis said.

It paid off. Not only did Bacot find his groove on the offensive end, but the graduate center found a way to defend Filipowski without fouling — something Davis said he was very concerned about going into Saturday.

And then with just under five minutes remaining, Bacot spun past Filipowski and earned an and-one to give UNC an 11-point lead.  When the whistle blew to give Filipowski his fourth foul, Bacot held down his palm in a “too small” taunt directed at the seven-footer guarding him.

UNC first-year guard Elliot Cadeau (2), graduate guard Cormac Ryan (3), graduate forward Armando Bacot (5) and junior forward Harrison Ingram (55) hold their palms down 'in a "too small" signal, directed toward Duke sophomore center Kyle Filipowski (30), during the men’s basketball game against Duke at the Dean E. Smith Center on Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. UNC beat Duke 93-84.

 

“A lot of times when I catch it in the post, sometimes I’m looking to pass, not force too much, not do too much," Bacot said. "But I thought today, I really just wanted to take it to his chest."

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His mom, Christie Lomax, said Saturday’s game was an emotional moment. That morning, she ate breakfast with the other parents of the basketball team and watched ESPN College GameDay’s segment interviewing her son and senior guard RJ Davis. That’s when it hit her: This is it. This is the last time he’ll play Duke at the Smith Center. 

“I didn’t have any expectation, just wanted [him] to have fun, live in the moment,” she told The Daily Tar Heel. “Once he came on fire, I knew we were good.”

Bacot said he was convinced UNC wouldn't lose the game. Why? Because he wouldn't allow it. Even if he’ll be making a trip to the dentist tomorrow, the chipped teeth are only a reminder of this victory: a win in his final home game against Duke.

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com